Military might won't transform Muslim culture

Posted: Oct 23, 2001 12:00 AM
Some liberals and neoconservatives have taken to proclaiming that American goals in our war on terrorism are too limited, and that the broad coalition President Bush has built is restricting our opportunity to bring democracy and liberty to the Islamic world. Our goals do seem simple: Keep the murderers from murdering again by destroying their network and bringing in their leaders, dead or alive. Build a worldwide consensus that warfare should be only soldier-to-soldier, not terrorist-to-civilian, and that weapons of mass destruction (including biological ones) should not be used. Root out those who refuse to join that consensus. That's too minimalist a definition for proponents of American empire, but it's the maximum that the United States should and probably can accomplish. As Americans, we would like to free a region of the world long dominated by dictatorship, but we cannot be the deliverers here. That's because the tendency toward dictatorship in Muslim countries grows right out of Islamic doctrine, and even military might cannot drastically alter a millennium of Muslim culture. It's hard for Americans to comprehend the heavy unifying emphasis of Islam because Christianity, which is both monotheistic and trinitarian, has heavily influenced an American culture that prizes both the one and the many, both unity and diversity. That's one reason the authors of the Constitution created a governmental trinity, a three-branched federal government filled with checks and balances. The Christian sense of original sin -- which when applied to politics is best summarized by Lord Acton's dictum that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely -- is foreign to Islam. Muslims emphasize tawhid (making everything united) and often look for strong leaders who can force unity. Muslims believe that we can be sinless if we have strong character and follow all the rules, so they have lots of rules, and very specific ones. Some are terrific, emphasizing humility: Don't boast about how you've contributed to build a mosque. Don't wear clothes just designed to attract attention. Some are common sense: Don't defecate near a place where people draw water. Other rules, though, are incredibly precise: Do not eradicate insects by burning them, because fire is to be used only on rats, scorpions, crows, kites and mad dogs. Do not read the Quran in a house where there is a dog, unless the dog is used for hunting, farming or herding livestock. Islam does not teach people to think for themselves. Hisham Kassem of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights even puts it this way: "It's not safe to think in this part of the world." Nor is it safe to stumble. Christianity is a religion of grace, within which those who sin but then declare spiritual bankruptcy get a second chance. With Islam, though, it's often one strike and you're out. The Bible has many stories of heroes like Abraham and Moses questioning God without being zapped. The word "Israel" means "struggles with God." The word "Islam," though, means "submission," period, so we are not to inquire of Allah -- or of men who consider themselves godlike. None of this should be taken to mean that most Muslims aren't decent people. Folks who submit to the Quran's injunctions against stealing and lying are likely to be better neighbors and citizens than moral anarchists. But when Muslims are a majority and gain the power to impose Islamic law, watch out, because neither the Quran nor Muslim practice suggests that those outside Islam will receive equal treatment. As the brewing company now named after him has reminded us in excellent ads, Samuel Adams two centuries ago prayed, "May Heaven grant that the principles of liberty and virtue, truth and justice, pervade the whole earth." Adams was right to send his appeal to heaven. Military power can oust one government and establish another, but only God can change hearts so that biblical principles of liberty and virtue are embraced.